Photo by Jila Nikpay
Photo by Jila Nikpay
Jila Nikpay doesn’t give up easily. For five years she photographed breast cancer survivors, slowly compiling a collection that she sees as an antidote to pink ribbon commercialization of the disease, while her requests for funding were rejected, one after another. Nikpay originally conceived of the project as an exhibition, so she approached local and national foundations for support. Although she hadn’t typically had trouble getting funding for her work about dislocation and her immigration from Iran—in fact, she’s won numerous awards and grants—this time she kept hearing “No.”

“I was turned down many times,” said Nikpay. After a few years, she found someone who was interested in her project. Rebecca Hage Thomley, president and CEO of Zenith Services, an organization that provides employment assistance to those with developmental disabilities, knew of Nikpay’s work and agreed to take a look at the breast cancer project. “She was familiar with the way I work with women and saw the sample and took it to her board,” said Nikpay.

A few months later, Zenith Services agreed to support Nikpay—not by financing a photo exhibit, but by publishing the cancer photos as a book.

Heroines: Transformation in the Face of Breast Cancer, a collection of photographs and poems, will be released in April.

The photographs

Heroines features black and white photographs of 21 local women who have experienced breast cancer. The project was sparked six years ago when a breast cancer survivor asked Nikpay, an accomplished photographer and filmmaker, to photograph her: she wanted to celebrate her body after the trauma of breast cancer. Nikpay then began looking for other women to photograph who had experienced breast cancer. Her criteria were women who were curious, possessed inner strength and had undergone a transformation because of their illness.

Nikpay wanted to portray women’s strength “in a quiet, authentic way.” She feels that pink ribbon campaigns commercialize breast cancer and infantilize women, particularly when they use products such as pink teddy bears or pink ribbons. “In my mind, there’s a lot of commercial activity connected with breast cancer and I don’t necessarily see that women’s strengths are presented,” she said. “I wanted to create something that spoke to inner strength and intellect.”

All of the women are photographed wrapped in fabric. “The idea behind it is to take the social clothes that are restrictive in the way of expressing the soul; I wanted to remove that obstacle,” Nikpay said. “The fabric allows the women to reveal or cover as they are comfortable…I’m very interested in the degree of comfort women have with their body.”

One of the women is pictured with no hair because of chemotherapy. Another shows her mastectomy scar. A few of the women hold props: a shell, a ball of twine. Heroines “gives a look at [women’s] emotional landscape through the photography and the poetry that I wrote. That appealed to them and they wanted to be part of that,” said Nikpay.

The poems

Although Nikpay isn’t a professional poet, she used her own poems to accompany the photographs. “At the beginning I tried to write little stories, and then quotations,” she said. “I felt like I was distracting from the images that were very poetic.”

Nikpay’s poems are short and spare. “Suddenly I was stripped / Breastless / Bald / Sick.”

The book also includes an essay, “How to Be Healed by Your Illness,” by Thomas Moore, former monk and bestselling author of Care of the Soul.